Mr. Brown was the man who gave me my first haircut. He had a barbershop in Portsmouth, VA and was a neighbor in my grandparents little ramshackle community of little two-room family housing built in the early forties to support the migration of Virginians moving to the area to work in the war effort. He cut the hair of my family for decades. Both my brothers and all three of my cousins received our first haircuts by his hand. Back in the day, he cut the hair of my father and my grandfather once a week, for fifteen cents.
For years, all I knew of Mr. Brown was the photograph from 1972 or 1973 of me at his shop. He wore a pale yellow short sleeve Oxford shirt and slacks. His glasses had those black frames you still see people wearing today. His hair was Bryll-creamed back; black on top, gray on the sides. He had a comb in the front pocket of his shirt.
This weekend, on the annual family camping trip, I found out more:
1. The Drinking. On Christmas Eve, when my dad and uncle were young, all the adults of their neighborhood would go from house to house in a big community party scene. My great-aunt Winnie would come down from Richmond to look after the boys. When the party came to my grandparents' house, she would lock the bedroom door and gather the boys to her while the house filled with drunken revellers. Mr Brown would bang loudly on the door, calling out "Come on out here, Weenie! Weeee-nie! Come out!" In the relative peace of hangover Christmas morning, Aunt Winnie would lecture my grandparents on their evil ways.
2. The Violence. I was told that Mr. Brown was only bad when he was drunk or when he was crossed in some way. For instance, he once slit a man's throat while giving him a shave. The man lived.
3. The family story you never want to hear. It starts like this: "Do you remember the time you went to that Klan meeting at Mr. Brown's barbershop?"
Now I am dealing with the fact that my first haircut, so carefully chosen to adhere to a family tradition, came at the hands of a man who was: (1) a pretty scary drunk; (2) an attempted murderer; and (3) a Klan organizer.